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The prestige of owning the Maserati Ghibli (model pictured is the Q4) combats its shortcomings, taking on BMW and Mercedes. Courtesy of Maserati
The prestige of owning the Maserati Ghibli (model pictured is the Q4) combats its shortcomings, taking on BMW and Mercedes. Courtesy of Maserati

The Italian job done: the new Maserati Ghibli

The new Ghibli may not be perfect, but it can compete, finds Danny Cobbs - partly because it's a Maserati.

There's something quite magical about a Maserati. Just saying the name (in your best Italian accent) causes the word to scamper about the mouth like a newly born lamb on a sun-dappled Tuscan hillside, before tripping off the tongue as if it were liquid chocolate being dripped through the fingers of a succubus.

Maseratis themselves have a mystical power too; a sort of black magic that can hypnotise the mind into forgiving them for practically anything. But here's the oddest of things: for all the mind-bending trickery of the trident badge and wanton lust it provokes, not many of us actually want the potential hassle of buying one or owning one longer term.

And that's been a huge problem for Maserati in recent years. It wants us to love and buy its gorgeous cars, obviously, but the image of the pre-bankrupt, pre-Fiat bailout days, when the company's cars fell from grace under a cloud of being unreliable and expensive rust buckets (OK, perhaps without the rust in the Middle East), still lingers like a portion of rancid Parmesan cheese. Not only that, but the recent model line-up simply can't better, or even equal, the cars they are trying so hard to compete against - despite their allure.

However, if we are to believe the Italian PR spiel, then the new Ghibli saloon is set to address that imbalance and offer the more discerning buyer a credible alternative to the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jaguar XF, Lexus GS or the Audi A6. That's right, Maserati is going (relatively speaking) downmarket. The Ghibli is, in the company's own words, "smaller, shorter, lighter, more dynamic, less expensive and more economical than the flagship Quattroporte". It suddenly becomes clear how Maserati hopes to come close to its target of 50,000 cars sold a year by 2015.

And, on first appearances, the Ghibli certainly seems to take the medium-sized, four-door executive saloon to a new and exciting level. It's a gorgeous-looking thing, like a scaled-down version of the Quattroporte, but with a more purposeful stance veering ever so slightly towards the menacing end of the continuum. Yet, despite any visual similarities between the two saloons, the only commonality is in the drivetrain, suspension and a shared platform, though even the latter has been shortened by 291 millimetres - no two body panels are the same. It is also 50 kilograms lighter, thanks in part to the clever use of lightweight aluminium and magnesium in its construction.

Call me pernickety here, but the body panels on our test cars were out of alignment. Not by much (a few millimetres at most), but noticeable all the same. It's a petty gripe, some might even say irrelevant, but Maserati will be asking above-average prices for these cars, so it's worth mentioning. Sorry, I lost myself for a minute and forgot I'm testing a Maserati. Stupid me. I forgot to make an excuse for this imperfection. I'm going to have to blame Italian quality control; they probably had an off-day. You don't hear that very often, so let's turn a blind eye and focus our attention on the interior instead.

Now this is more like it. As the waft of fine leather intoxicates me, I sink into lavish seats that give just the right combination of support and comfort. The cabin is awash with leather. The Italians must have slaughtered an entire herd of Friesian cows for each car. This "Poltrona Frau" leather is simply magnificent. Plus, the buyer can choose from two different leather finishes for the curvy dashboard. There's more to like inside the cabin too, including a fast-acting, touch-screen infotainment system, a kicking 15-speaker audio system from Bowers & Wilkins and the option of creating your very own Wi-Fi hot spot.

I'd go so far as to say the craftsmanship shown is on a par, if not better, than many of its German rivals; it's certainly more of an occasion. Passengers in the rear might not necessarily agree with that last statement, though. Their portion of the car may also be a cocoon of sumptuous cowhide, but legroom is limited, in all likelihood meaning that knees will be forced to press up hard against the backs of the front seats, unless the front seat occupants are feeling particularly charitable. On a more positive note, there is a generous amount of rear headroom, the rear seat back splits 60-40 and the boot holds a useful 500 litres of luggage. Even the glovebox and other storage areas are generously proportioned.

But we (and most actual buyers, too, probably) really don't care about such practicalities, or that anyone taller than average height sitting in the back might succumb to deep vein thrombosis. Because there's a hulking great V6 engine under the bonnet, urging me to cease with this banal chit chat, get on with the job in hand and push the ignition button (it's a keyless affair, of course) to stoke the Ghibli into life. In actual fact, there are two versions of this 3.0L, twin-turbocharged petrol engine on offer: one produces 330 horsepower and the other has been tuned up to 410hp. Depending on the market, there are rear- and four-wheel-drive versions, plus a powerful new 3.0L, twin-turbo V6 diesel.

Clearly the petrol Ghiblis are of most interest around here, and they come with a super-slick, paddle-change, eight-speed ZF automatic transmission as standard. This offers a surprising number of shift strategies to choose from: Auto Normal, Auto Sport, Manual Normal, Manual Sport and the extreme weather "ICE" mode. You press a button on the (big) transmission tunnel to summon up manual control and gear changes are then via the pleasingly elongated paddles behind the steering wheel. Along with this well-proven gearbox (we've experienced how accomplished it is already in everything from the BMW 1 Series to the new Range Rover Sport) is a mechanical limited-slip differential on the rear axle on all versions of the Ghibli. That's unheard of in this class, and illustrates where Maserati is positioning its new entrant.

The entry-level Ghibli features the 330hp engine, which it pairs with a mighty 500Nm of torque. Nobody's going to call a 0-to-100kph time of 5.6 seconds "entry-level" though, are they? Next up is the rear-drive Ghibli S, powered by the 410hp, twin-turbo V6. Torque swells to 550Nm (from just 1,750rpm) and the benchmark sprint time drops to 5.0 seconds. The four-wheel-drive model, called Q4, uses the same engine but is 0.2 seconds quicker to 100kph and it tops 284kph. The Q4's four-wheel-drive system is very much biased towards the rear wheels. Indeed, in normal conditions, this Ghibli thinks it is a rear-drive saloon, sending 100 per cent of the engine's output rearward. When an army of sensors reckon it's time more grip and traction are required, it takes 150 milliseconds to send up to 50 per cent of the available power to the front axle, though Maserati likes to point out that there's rarely more than 35 per cent sent there.

This is the part where I should be describing the Ghibli's driving characteristics. I should be drooling over its fine handling skills like a love-struck schoolboy, but I can't. It felt a bit on the lazy side and there's too much imbalance on the diagonal damping for my liking, resulting in a ride that's noticeably uneven and choppy. But I'm going to gloss over these trivial matters, because, lest we forget, this is still a Maserati, and allowances have to be made. I'm going to suggest, therefore, that the Sports mode is kept permanently deployed. With the push of a button, it will instantly disperse any lethargy, sharpen-up the throttle, quicken the gear changes and increase the sound expelled from the quad tailpipes to a pitch that is more in keeping with an Italian V6 power plant.

For the record, the Ghibli comes with fixed-rate damping as standard and can be specified with the company's Skyhook adaptive damping system. The latter is well worth having, as it attempts to optimise damping on a per-wheel basis, while allowing the driver to choose a firmer default set-up. Maserati is also planning to make a sportier passive system available, with a lower ride height and dual-rate Koni dampers. Somewhat surprisingly, this may only be for the Ghibli S Q4 and the diesel model, as they "suffer" from heavier front ends than the other variants - though only by a few percentage points.

I'm sure by now you've gathered that the Ghibli is far from perfect. And to be totally truthful, if it were anything other than a Maserati, I know I wouldn't have been so lenient with my comments and probably question its very existence. But because it's a Maserati, and a very delicious-looking one at that, is that reason alone to overlook its many foibles and continually defend its honour? Have you learnt nothing here? Of course it is; it's a Maserati after all. What would you rather say? "I drive a BMW", or "I drive a Maserati"? Job done, the magic continues.

weekend@thenational.ae

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